Phantom Tongue, by Steven Sanchez
Sundress Publications, 2018. 79 pp.
Reviewed by Susanna Lang


In this profoundly ambivalent exploration of identity and origins, Steven Sanchez shows himself capable of working his difficult way through pain and confusion to at least a tentative resolution. Phantom Tongue opens with an epigraph by Rafael Campo: “All night…a truth unfolds.” Campo is a role model and a mentor for the younger poet, as he describes in a conversation with Laura Villareal on the Sundress blog.

Campo handles bodies, particularly Queer and brown bodies, with such tenderness and compassion. His book was the first book I’d ever read by a QPOC and it blew me away by showing me the different ways a body is labeled, identified, and understood. It also encouraged me to figure out the stories my own body has told and continues to tell—it empowered me interrogate who shape(d)/(s) my body’s narratives.

The epigraph leads seamlessly into the first poem of the collection, “On the Seventh Day,” in which he evokes his own nighttime search for others like himself, images of “paper men/…caught inside words/they don’t even know exist….” He cuts these images apart, a preview of the violence that pervades many of these poems, and then hides these reassembled men inside his dictionary—once again caught inside words, as his memories and emotions are caught inside his poems. It’s a strange kind of creation outside God’s creation, on the seventh day when God rested from His own work.


The violence of this new creation can be traced in part to Sanchez’s origins story, the son of a father who was himself given to violence and to homophobia, and who had been abandoned as a child. Father like son is caught in the between space of the border, Mexican but not fluent in Spanish. In the powerful fantasy of “In Case of Fire,” Sanchez imagines saving his father from the flames, though even in his self-sacrificing efforts to rescue his father he recalls his ten-year-old self “hiding/beneath the sheets” from a father who pulled his mother’s braid of hair and grabbed the child’s thin wrist too tightly. He acknowledges that he has learned rage from his father, that he carries his father inside his body as pain:

…remember

your father’s

dozen faces

splintered

in glass, remember

how sharp

his eyes can be,

how easy

your bare foot

can crush

his face

into dust,

how even then

you’ll carry shards

of him

inside your skin.


By the end of the book, these images of fire have led to the tattoo of a phoenix on the speaker’s shoulders in “Etymology of Faggot,” and the understanding that, as in the evangelical faith in which he was raised, “you have to die/before you can be resurrected”—an understanding he shares in the last poem with his brother, who is beginning his own difficult journey toward understanding of self.


There are other salvations, as well: the tender recollections of his grandmother in “English Has Approximately 250,000 Words” and “Past Tense,” and the tenderness of two bodies finding each other in the sequence beginning with “Thunder”—even if it means he has to rewrite history in order to find that tenderness, as in “Photograph Of Our Shadows.” All in all, this collection is an impressive debut and a human testament to our capacity to heal. 


Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was released in summer 2017 from Terrapin Books. Her last collection was Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013).  A two-time Hambidge fellow, her poems have appeared in such publications as Little Star, Prairie Schooner, december, American Life in Poetry and Verse Daily.  Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone and The Origin of Language.  Among her current projects is Self-Portraits, a chapbook collection of ekphrastic poems focused on women artists. She lives with her husband in Chicago. More information available at www.susannalang.com.